January 18, 2007
D-A-T-E is just a four-letter word
I'm not sure why this never made any of the 2006 year-end lists, but it seems that -- at least for singles -- the most confusing question of the year wasn't "How do you
pronounce 'al-Zarqawi?'" but the more mundane "How was your date?" To be specific, the confusing part would always be the word "date," as in, "Was I even on one?"
Because in today's modern world, a guy and a girl looking for love can make plans, rush home from work, wash extra carefully in certain areas, put on nice clothes, spend three hours in flirtatious conversation at the local sushi joint, say a warm good night and still come home wondering whether what they just experienced was a date or two people who wanted to be on a date but were instead simply "hanging out."
As a single mom whose social life in the first half of 2006 was as nonexistent as sleep, I couldn't understand why everyone had suddenly become so squeamish about using the word "date." Why wouldn't anyone call a date a date anymore? Like other neutral words that became linguistic pariahs ("Well, I'm not sure I'd call myself a feminist") had the word "date" acquired a negative connotation during the time I'd been parked in a rocking chair breast-feeding and reading back issues of Parenting magazine?
Then, as soon as I started wearing a bra and reading The New Yorker again, I asked a guy out and the semantic "date" problem became utterly clear. We met for dinner, shared some calamari and banter, and took a quick walk before ending up at my car. I thought it was fairly obvious that there was some platonic but not romantic chemistry between us, which I guess is also why I thought it was fairly obvious that when I hugged him goodbye, it was the same hug I give to all of my friends and even some random strangers.
Admittedly, he did say, "I'd like to take you out again," which under other circumstances might suggest the words "on a date," but this is a guy whose neighbor is one of The Beatles. I mean, with that kind of financial picture, I thought, maybe he takes everyone out.
Sort of like the way I hug everyone. In any event, I assumed he knew that although we'd indeed gone on a date, if we got together again, we would be "hanging out."
Just in case, though -- and believe me, I'm not proud of this -- when we did make plans the following week, I felt the need to explain that while I was definitely interested in him, I wasn't interested interested in him. In other words, we'd be setting a date but not going on a date date.
It was a rather unfortunate e-mail, one that still makes me blush with mild regret and severe mortification. Especially since it ultimately turned out that he had zero interest in me -- "as a friend" or otherwise. Date schmate.
I realized, in retrospect, that there were good reasons for my never having asked a guy on a date before (or since).
Unconsciously, even before my friends started substituting the verboten words "going on a date" with "having a drink," "meeting for brunch" or "doing a hike," I must have known that regardless of whether you used that four-letter D-word, the concept alone could get you into all kinds of trouble. For instance, if I asked a guy out on an explicit date, and he wasn't interested, he'd have to find a tactful way to reject the offer -- and as a woman, I know what an oxymoron "tactful rejection" can be.
On the other hand, if I made a more casual offer, how would he know it was a date? Would he interpret "Want to come to this party on Thursday night?" as "with me" or "to meet other women"? Even worse, what if he knew it was a date and I realized midway through the evening that I just wanted to be friends (or never see him again)? How could I convey my lack of interest in dating him (other than not returning his calls, which he'd interpret as me "playing hard to get," since I, after all, was the one who expressed interest in the first place)?
My friend Kevin (a friend friend, no dating) said that to avoid this kind of confusion, he goes on what he likes to call "stealth dates." As he put it, "Most women don't know I'm asking them out, and 70 percent of the time, they won't know I'm on a date with them. But I'm having a lovely time."
It's an interesting strategy, but my wish for 2007 is that we singles return to the real thing. We may be looking ahead toward a brand new year, but I'm already nostalgic for a good old-fashioned romantic d-a-t-e. If only somebody would be bold enough to unambiguously ask me on one.
Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR and her most recent book is "I Love You, Nice To Meet You" (St. Martin's Press). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.